Guest post: Aging Without Children

Dear readers,

While I’m goofing off in Tucson, I’m giving this week’s post to Lisa Manterfield, author of Life Without Baby: Surviving and Thriving When Motherhood Doesn’t Happen and the blog of the same name. Although she addresses her comments to women, men can benefit from her advice, too, sans the bit about menopause. Enjoy. I’ll see you next week. As always, your comments are welcome.

Sue

Aging Without Children

by Lisa Manterfield

Lisa Manterfield picWith luck, we will all grow old eventually. However, aging without children holds a unique set of challenges that our parenting counterparts don’t have to face. Our experiences differ with the milestones we hit, such as menopause, as well as those we miss, such as grandparenthood. And while most parents assume they will be cared for by their children in their twilight years, for those of us without offspring, dying alone and being forgotten are perhaps two of our biggest fears. There’s no doubt that these fears are legitimate While we cannot control the future, we can control our awareness, preparation, and a shift in perspective that can help alleviate some of the concern and uncertainty.

Hitting the milestone of menopause can feel like the last cruel barb thrown up along this journey. Just when you think you’ve come to terms with not having children, your body pulls out its rubber stamp and seals the deal. This “official” end of the possibility of biological motherhood marks the final and ultimate loss of what might have been. You may find yourself grieving all over again, not only the loss of motherhood, but regrets about the paths not taken.

Our society isn’t good about helping people grieve intangible losses, so we have to give ourselves permission to reflect during this time and to mourn the losses we feel. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I learned on my own journey of coming to terms with the fact that I would never be a mother is the importance of creating an ending and allowing myself to grieve. For many of us, the possibility of motherhood often doesn’t go away until menopause hits, and we’re left hanging with that hope that it could still happen. Drawing a line in the sand and saying “this is where it ends” allows us to move forward into grief and to deal with our loss in a way that feels right to us (and not how society thinks we should handle it!)

But then what? What about that misty future without children? What about that unknown territory of growing old alone?

Perhaps one of the biggest fears many of us face when looking at a future without children is having no one to care for us as we age. We picture ourselves shunted into a low-cost care facility where decisions about our healthcare are made by strangers. We imagine we will die alone without a single familiar face beside us.

Unfortunately, in this messy old world, few of us have a say in how we’ll shuffle off this mortal coil. The reality is that fate, illness, dementia, and catastrophe seem to randomly select whom to bestow their gifts upon. We have little control in how we’ll exit or who—if anyone—will surround us when we go. So, with that happy thought, let’s talk about aging.

I suspect that those of us without children spend a lot more time than most people worrying about what will become of us later in life. Many parents assume their children will take care of them as they age. But if you’ve spent any time in hospitals and nursing homes, you know that parenthood is no guarantee of elder care, and many, many elderly people spend their final days without the company and care of the children they’d counted on. Ensuring care in your old age and having someone to carry out your last wishes is not a good reason to have children, but it’s another great reason to have friends.

As I’ve watched my own mother, a widow for many years, move into her 80s, I’ve come to see how important it is to nurture a circle of good friends. But, it’s not always easy to make new friends when you’re not moving in mommy circles and don’t have shared activities, such as PTA or kids’ sports, so how do you develop real connections, the kind you need when you’re asking someone to step in during your time of need?

Rather than trying to seek out other childless women and then looking for common interests, try starting with the common interest and seeking out the people you’re drawn to. That might mean joining a small group, such as a book club, exercise class, or adult education class, something that meets regularly so that you get to know each other better over time. At each meeting, challenge yourself to get to know one new person a little better. Start with the easy questions, like what do you do for work (and be sure to go in with some stock answers for the inevitable “Do you have kids?” question.) You’re looking for common ground, so over time, ease into conversations about hobbies and special interests. As the friendship develops, look for ways to make a more personal connection outside the group. Invite her to meet for coffee, a walk, or a drive, something where you can enjoy some quality one-on-one time and get to the deeper conversations that will strengthen your connection.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is! But so is family, and these friends are the “family” we’re choosing. As with blood family, there’s no guarantee these friends will be there for you as you age, but I do see a future where seniors will help one another. Lately, I’ve been hearing about retirement villages where able-bodied residents help those who aren’t mobile, and local volunteers are assigned as advocates.

I’m also hearing more about older women living together to support one another, and networks of single, divorced, and widowed friends checking in on each other. A different kind of family is being created and a little effort now can help alleviate some of the worry about spending our later years alone. But it won’t happen by magic and it’s up to each of us to nurture the relationships with the people we’d like to have around as we age.

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Lisa Manterfield is the creator of LifeWithoutBaby.com, online community that provides resources, community, compassion, and support to women facing a life without children. She is the author of Life Without Baby: Surviving and Thriving When Motherhood Doesn’t Happen and the award-winning memoir I’m Taking My Eggs and Going Home: How One Woman Dared to Say No to Motherhood. She lives in Southern California, with her wonderful husband (“Mr. Fab”) and overindulged cat, where she is working on her latest novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Childlessness looks different when you’re pushing 90

Seniors have a different take on childlessness than people in their 20s, 30s or 40s. For one thing, menopause has occurred and pregnancy is no longer a possibility. For another, they know how the story turned out.
I gave a talk about my Childless by Marriage book on Sunday at the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. It was such a pleasant experience I’m tempted to drop in again soon. They meet in the upstairs classroom of the Newport Visual Arts Center. The big windows look out on Nye Beach, with the Yaquina Head lighthouse visible to the north. Even on a stormy day, when everything is gray and white, the view is stunning and surely inspires the many artists who leave their paint splatters on the tables and floors.
At 60, I may have been the youngest person there. The oldest was 90.The meeting was an interesting blend of morning coffee and snacks, music, meditation, readings, sharing of concerns, and me.
As I told my story and read excerpts from my book, the audience reacted with nods, oohs and laughs, and when I opened up the discussion, they had plenty to say. Nearly everyone in the room had children. A few had adopted children. Only half had grandchildren. One said her only child, a daughter, died when she was 16.
These lovely elders, several with accents from far away, one lady nearly blind, said they didn’t have much choice when they were young. You got married and had children. If you were physically unable, you adopted. Now their own children and grandchildren are making different choices. They don’t begrudge them these choices, if that’s what they want to do. It’s good that young people have more choices now. A few recalled the days when you couldn’t be a teacher or a stewardess if you were married or had children. Women worked for a few years as teachers or nurses, then retired to become moms.
A few reminded me of ZPG, the zero population growth movement that became popular in the 1960s. It stemmed from The Population Bomb, a book by Paul Ehrlich, which predicted that the human race would destroy itself and the earth if it didn’t stop having so many children. Some people did decide then not to procreate. With birth control coming on the scene, many had fewer children than the generations before.
I talked about how people ask why we don’t have children and shared some of the answers people give: “It wasn’t God’s plan.” “I didn’t want them.” “Ask my husband.” “It just happened.” The Unitarians couldn’t believe anyone would be rude enough to ask. It’s none of their business, they said, and they would not dignify the question with an answer.
We talked about old age without children. If we don’t have children, who will take care of us? Will we be all alone? As I have heard so many times, they scoffed at the idea that one’s children will be around when one needs help. Where we live on the Oregon coast is a long hard drive from any major city. Most young people move away to go to school and get jobs elsewhere. They can’t come back to hold our hands.
Whether or not we have children is almost irrelevant, they said. We need to reach out to friends to help us. If we have enough money, we can buy our way into senior communities, assisted living institutions and the like, but we can’t count on our kids. We need to count on each other.
Finally, someone commented that there seems to be a stigma attached to not having children. People don’t talk about it much. But for that hour with the Unitarians, with the ocean gently moving in and out in the background, we did talk about it, and it felt good.